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A Scientific Legend

Stanford News Service

NOBEL EFFORTS: Kornberg mixed research groups in the labs.

Even at a school replete with towering intellects, colleagues describe Arthur Kornberg as “legendary.” During the decade Watson and Crick described the chemical structure of DNA, Kornberg was purifying the enzyme—polymerase 1—that is responsible for the reassembly of two halves of a double helix. This understanding of the chemical process that goes on in living cells enabled scientists to create drugs for cancer and viral infections (like, eventually, HIV/AIDS) by preventing the virus from reproducing itself. The work earned Kornberg a Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, which he shared with Severo Ochoa, who did similar work with RNA.

Kornberg, professor of biochemistry at the School of Medicine for nearly 50 years, died October 26 at Stanford Hospital. He was 89.

Brooklyn-born Kornberg earned his bachelor's degree from the City College of New York in 1937 and his medical degree from the University of Rochester in 1941. He was an officer in the U.S. Public Health Service and did stints studying enzymology at New York University and at Washington University in St. Louis.

In 1959, the year he won the Nobel, Kornberg came to Stanford as chair of the new department of biochemistry. He set up the department with shared lab space so that research groups mixed, creating a spirit of cooperation. Five of the department's original members worked together for nearly 50 years, training generations of leaders in biomedical research. “We came to be known as probably the premier department in the country,” said Paul Berg, Nobel laureate and professor emeritus in biochemistry. In his 70s, Kornberg shifted his attention to a long chain of phosphates called poly P, which he felt could lead to revolutionary drugs for fighting infection. In addition to the Nobel Prize, he won numerous awards, including the National Medal of Science. He was president of the American Society of Biological Chemistry in 1965 and was awarded honorary degrees from 12 universities.

A father of three, Kornberg passed on his interest in science: son Roger won a Nobel Prize in 2006. They were the sixth father-son pair to win the prize. Kornberg's wife of 43 years, Sylvy Ruth Levy Kornberg, died in 1986. She worked in her husband's lab and contributed significantly to his studies of DNA replication in the '50s. His second wife, Charlene Walsh Levering Kornberg, died in 1995. In addition to Roger, Kornberg is survived by his wife, Carolyn Frey Dixon Kornberg; sons Thomas and Kenneth; and eight grandchildren. His legacy also carries on in his children's book, Germ Stories, published in November.

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